Twitter as an amplifier of antivaccine messages

Before 2005, I did pay attention to the antivaccine movement, but it wasn’t one of my biggest priorities when it comes to promoting science-based medicine. That all changed when Robert F. Kennedy published his incredibly conspiracy-packed black whole of antivaccine pseudoscience entitled Deadly Immunity. Sadly, almost exactly ten years later, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. hasn’t changed. He’s still spewing the same antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories that he was spewing a decade ago, with no sign of letting up.

One thing that has changed over the last decade is the social media landscape. Back when I first started blogging, pretty much all there were were websites and blogs. On the antivaccine side, there were pretty much websites, most of them not particularly well-designed or attractive, and some of the “big name” blogs that serve as amplifies of the antivaccine message, such as Age of Autism, didn’t even exist yet. Jenny McCarthy was still into “Indigo Child” woo and had not become an antivaccine celebrity. Overall, the antivaccine movement wasn’t particularly good at leveraging these tools.

Over the years, different forms of social media proliferated. There came Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and who knows what else. Yet, for a while, the antivaccine movement was fairly slow to adopt these new tools. Truth be told, so were skeptics, but that is changing. In fact, arguably, last year was the year the antivaccine movement discovered Twitter. I noted it myself when I mocked the inept attempts of antivaccinationists to use Twitter to capitalize on the “CDC whistleblower” scandal, that fake scandal based on a clueless CDC psychologists‘ flirting with antivaccinationists and misinterpretation of a major study that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. As I put it at the time: A mix of antivaccine loons plus antivaccine Twitter newbies = comedy gold! Antivaccine cranks Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield are still trying to use this fake scandal to stir up trouble and appear to be (mostly) failing.

Unfortunately, since their first hilariously nonsensical attempts at using Twitter to get the attention of news reporters and legislators, antivaccinationists have turned their attention to defeating California SB 277, the bill currently wending its way through the California legislature that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Every time SB 277 advances further in the process towards becoming law, antivaccinationists lose it. Through it all, they’ve been likening the vaccine program to the Holocaust and themselves to the Jews, in the spirit of choosing the most wildly offensive and inappropriate comparisons they can, something they have a proclivity for. Through it all, they’ve started to successfully co-opt the language of “health freedom” to portray their opposition as an issue of “personal choice,” “parental rights,” and other antivaccine dogwhistles that resonate with conservative and libertarian politics, including a subset of the white, affluent parents who make up the bulk of the antivaccine movement.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who’s noticed these things, either. Just yesterday, an excellent article by Renee Diresta and Gilad Lotan entitled Anti-Vaxxers Are Using Twitter to Manipulate a Vaccine Bill:

But a small group of vocal anti-vaxxers is fighting hard to keep it from passing. This group, which leverages the power of social media, has launched a full-scale attack on the bill as it travels through the legislature. Each day, leaders craft tweets and instruct followers to disseminate them. Several senators who voted in favor of the California legislation have found themselves receiving extensive attention from the group—one, Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, has been @-mentioned (often unfavorably) in a particular Twitter hashtag more than 2,000 times since casting her vote in favor of the legislation.

This anti-vax activity might seem like low-stakes, juvenile propaganda. But social networking has the potential to significantly impact public perception of events—and the power to influence opinions increasingly lies with those who can most widely and effectively disseminate a message. One small, vocal group can have a disproportionate impact on public sentiment and legislation. Welcome to “Anti-Vax Twitter.”

So far, you might ask yourself: So what? How is this different from any other interest group trying to harness the power of social media to get its message heard? To some extent, it’s not, but one thing Diresta and Lotan note as distinguishing this effort from those of other interest groups is just how much Twitter is used to attack and bully legislators who voted for the bill. They are particularly ruthless about going after these people:

Tweetiatrician” doctors, lawyers, and pro-vaccine parents often do attempt to join the conversation around the antivax hashtags. Unfortunately, many of the most active accounts experience the same attention received by the legislators: They become the target of harassment that includes phone calls to their places of employment, tweets posting identifying information or photos of their children, or warnings that they are being watched. Pro-vaccine activists and legislators alike often encounter paranoia when they attempt to engage the anti-vax community. They face accusations of being shills paid by Big Pharma to sway the narrative and keep “vaccine choice” activists from spreading The Truth.

Yes, this is typical behavior for the antivaccine movement, and I’ve been at its receiving end more than I can recall, beginning within a year after I started blogging. The most “spectacular”—if you can call it that—example occurred a few years ago, when our old buddy Jake Crosby wrote an post for his former buds at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism accusing me of a major undisclosed conflict of interest, resulting in a campaign on the part of antivaccinationists to contact my Dean, my department chair, and the board of governors of my university demanding an investigation and my firing. Things have been quiet for a while, but if my media presence increases (and it just might this year) I could have to put up with a new round of attacks.

Fortunately, I work for a university, and the tradition of academic freedom at universities is such that such campaigns almost always fail, with the administration politely listening and then ignoring the cranks. At a private company, I might not have been so lucky. I might have been fired, or the company might have ordered me to stop blogging, and there would have been little or nothing I could do about it. This is how antivaccinationists silence their critics.

So far, so good. Diresta and Lotan’s article rings true, but it doesn’t tell those of us who try to counter the antivaccine movement anything we haven’t already known for a long time. What Diresta and Lotan did that was interesting (to me, at least) was to analyze the hashtags associated with Tweets in opposition to SB 277 and analyze how they clustered. Basically, they analyzed hashtags used by people in Twitter, generating images in which circular nodes are Twitter handles and large nodes indicate accounts with more followers, making their Tweets more likely to be seen (“high centrality”). Lines between the nodes represent follower relationships, and different colors represent communities sharing similar messages, with the distance between regions based on common ties: The more common ties, the closer one group is to another, the more shared connections they have, and the more likely information is to spread among them.

First, Diresta and Lotan note the “Twitter party” that I made fun of back in August, particularly the instructions given by more “experienced” antivaccine Twitter users to all the newbies they were trying to recruit. In the end, one thing Lotan and Diresta found that I thought to be true without quantifying last year: Large numbers of these Tweets came from a few accounts. Indeed, 63,555 of these Tweets came from 10 prominent anti-vax accounts, such as @tannersdad and @ThinkerMichelle (yes, one of the “not-so-Thinking Moms’ Revolution“).

The second thing Diresta and Lotan did was to analyze these clusters with reference to the #SB277 hashtag to look at trends over time, specifically at how the antivaccine Twitter community, the autism Twitter community, and conservatives, many of whom use popular Tea Party hashtags. Remember how I’ve discussed how antivaccinationists have of late been aligning themselves with more conservative talking points? Well, take a look at these results.

In the first graph, the conservative Twittersphere is pretty separate from the antivaccine Twittersphere, which has some overlap with the autism Twittersphere. At that intersection are some names you’re probably familiar with, such as @AgeofAutism, @The_Refusers, @TannersDad, and others. By the second network graph for SB277:

But as you look at this second network graph, you can see how antivax political strategy has shifted. A new group emerges in the space between “Antivax Twitter” and “Conservative Twitter”—we call it “vaccine choice” Twitter. The tweeters are the same individuals who have long been active in the autism-vaccine #cdcwhistleblower network. And originally, much of the content shared in #sb277 focused on the same anti-vax pseudoscience underlying #cdcwhistleblower. However, as bad science and conspiracies repeatedly lost in legislative votes, anti-vaxxers updated their marketing: They are now “pro-SAFE vaccine” parental rights advocates. Instructions to the group now focus on hammering home traditionally conservative “parental choice” and “health freedom” messaging rather than tweeting about autism and toxins.

Twitter activity around #sb277 is part of a multipronged strategy that takes place alongside phone, email, and fax campaigns, coordinated by well-funded groups including the Canary Party and the NVIC. The net effect is that legislators and staffers feel besieged on all fronts. In one unfortunate video, a movement leader encouraged supporters to use Twitter to harass and stalk a lobbyist, who has since filed police reports. In a very recent creation, that same leader excoriates her “Twitter army” for diluting the power of the #cdcwhistleblower movement by creating their own hashtags rather than using the ones they’ve been assigned. She also requests that the entire network tweet at Assembly representatives to inform them that their political careers will be over if they vote in favor of SB277. Much like Food Babe leverages her #foodbabearmy to flood corporations with demands for change, the goal of anti-vax twitter is to dominate the conversation and make it look as if all parents are vehemently opposed to the legislation.

It’s amazing how much what Diresta and Lotan have found resembles what I’ve been saying all along. Specifically, I’ve been pointing out for several months how how the antivaccine movement has been co-opting conservative rhetoric, to the point where some conservative politicians have found it worthwhile to pander to these kooks, as Rand Paul does and, unfortunately, my very own state senator. Yes, antivaccine beliefs are, as I’ve pointed out so many times before, the pseudoscience that transcends politics and party lines, but over the last year or so, the loudest voices in the antivaccine movement appear to be increasingly leaning conservative-libertarian, thanks to their intentional co-optation of “health freedom” rhetoric and messages based on distrust of the government and being against government regulations and mandates with respect to health. It’s a potent message that can appeal not just to conservatives.

And who opposes this on Twitter?

That’s the depressing thing. Diresta and Lotan note that, despite the vast majority of the population supporting vaccination, there is no pro-vaccine Twitter machine to speak of to oppose the antivaccine Twitter machine. That’s because most parents just vaccinate. They don’t organize into groups around the activity, or, as Diresta and Lotan put it, people “don’t organize in groups around everyday life-saving measures,” which is why there is no pro-seatbelt movement on Twitter. Worse, the goal of the antivaccine movement on social media like Twitter, its disingenuous claim to be “not antivaccine but ‘pro-safe vaccine'” notwithstanding, is to make new parents question everything about vaccines and erode confidence in vaccination. Indeed, as I’ve noted before, antivaccinationists like J. B. Handley gloat when vaccine rates fall.

No wonder they hate SB 277 so much.